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Asylum seekers can use Roxham Road crossing in Quebec again as pandemic ban lifted

MONTREAL — An unofficial border crossing in rural Quebec that was used by asylum seekers to enter Canada has reopened after being closed for much of the pandemic.

MONTREAL — An unofficial border crossing in rural Quebec that was used by asylum seekers to enter Canada has reopened after being closed for much of the pandemic.

The crossing at Roxham Road, on the Canada-United States border south of Montreal, is where thousands have crossed into the country to claim refugee status. The federal government ordered the crossing shut in March 2020 as the pandemic closed the U.S.-Canada border, but as of Sunday the order has been lifted.

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said Tuesday the improving public health situation and the decision by the United States to reopen its land border with Canada led to the removal of restrictions for refugee claimants.

"All asylum seekers must adhere to stringent public health measures, including quarantine and testing requirements," Alexander Cohen said in an email.

During the pandemic, Canada had an agreement with the U.S. to take part in so-called "direct backs." That involved suspending a person's asylum claim and temporarily returning them to the United States. Direct backs, however, have ended with the reopening of the land border between the two countries.

The Canadian Council for Refugees said that other than quarantine-related rules related to COVID-19, the situation remains the same as pre-pandemic times, with claimants having to enter outside of an official port of entry to avoid being immediately returned to the United States.

Under the 2004 Safe Third Country agreement, Canada and the United States recognize each other as safe. Potential refugees, therefore, must file their claims in the first country they reach. But that agreement only applies to claims made at official border crossings.

Refugee claimants are instead choosing to enter Canada at irregular crossings such as Roxham Road. What remains unclear is how many will opt for that route now.

Janet Dench, the refugee council's executive director, said advocates don't expect the huge numbers of arrivals that were seen in 2017 and 2018.

“A lot of the reason why people were coming was because they felt the Trump administration was going to be very aggressive in deporting them,” Dench said. “They felt very insecure and with the Biden administration, which is much more open to finding ways to allow people to regularize, then there’s much less incentive if they’re well established in the U.S.”

Montreal immigration lawyer Stéphane Handfield says he's already received messages this week about refugees seeking asylum via Roxham. Handfield said in an interview Tuesday there won't likely be the same type of surge as a few years ago, but he said he expected a steady stream of asylum seekers as long as the Safe Third Country agreement is the law.

The pact is subject to a legal challenge, with advocates for refugee claimants asking the Supreme Court of Canada to review a decision that found it to be constitutional. 

Last year, the Federal Court ruled the binational refugee agreement violated the constitutional guarantees of life, liberty and security. But that decision was overturned earlier in 2021 by the Federal Court of Appeal, leading to the application to the country's highest court.

Handfield said that even with Roxham Road closed, people still made their way in to Canada, probably through the forests and fields in the Montérégie region, south of Montreal.

“We had clients (during the pandemic) who didn’t come from the airport and hadn’t gone through an official border crossing or even Roxham Road, so people crossed elsewhere," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2021.

The Canadian Press